- Historic Sites
Prelude To Doomsday
While the volcano rumbled, lovely little St. Pierre slumbered on. It awoke only to die—in a terrible preview of nuclear holocaust
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
My calmness astonishes me. I am awaiting the event tranquilly. My only suffering is from the dust, which penetrates everywhere, even through closed doors and windows. We are all calm. Mamma is not a bit anxious. Edith alone is frightened. If death awaits us there will be a numerous company to leave the world. Will it be by fire or asphyxia? It will be what God wills. You will have our last thoughts. Tell brother Robert that we are still alive. This will, perhaps, be no longer true when this letter reaches you.
When these letters were opened, those who penned them were no more. Only “Edith,” a visitor who was not inured to living in the glare of a flaming volcano, was alive, having fled the city for a refuge at the southern end of the island, many miles away.
During the forenoon of Monday, May 5, the city plucked up courage again, for Pelée’s anger seemed to decline. But that afternoon, just before one o’clock, the sea without warning withdrew more than one hundred meters, then rushed back into the Mouillage district. Throngs fled to higher ground in panic. At the same time, a vast cloud of smoke arose west of the volcano. In a few minutes the sea receded peaceably.
A few hours later the cause of the violent flux and reflux of the sea became known: one wall of the Étang Sec crater-basin had crashed down, hurling an avalanche of boiling water and mud into the gorge of the Rivière Blanche. The seething mass raced toward the sea at express-train speed, trailing a plume of steam like a runaway locomotive, and at the mouth of the river rolled over the Guérin sugar works, the largest on the island, burying some 150 victims in mud two and three hundred feet deep.
The rush of terrorized refugees into St. Pierre from the suburbs stepped up, but so did the exodus, in a confusion of coming and going. On Monday night the atmospheric disturbances knocked out the city’s electrical system, and darkness added to the uncertainty and fear. Toward 2 A.M. Tuesday, mutterings sounded in Pelée’s depths, louder than thunder, and people ran out of their houses with lighted lamps and candles, wildly inquiring what had happened. No one could say. The hours passed anxiously; when daybreak disclosed the city undamaged, the tension eased, and the citizens reassured one another.
This spurt of confidence was given official support by a committee of experts who had been appointed by Governor Mouttet to study the situation from the standpoint of public safety. The committee reported that nothing in Pelée’s activity thus far would justify the mass evacuation of the city. “The relative positions of the craters and valleys opening toward the sea sanction the conclusion that St. Pierre’s safety is not endangered,” the experts held.
Further to emphasize the official want of concern, Governor Mouttet and his wife moved over from Fort-de-France.
But on Wednesday, May 7—St. Pierre’s last dayᰬ—there was fresh disquietude. At 4 A.M. Pelée began roaring; vivid lightning flashed continually around the summit, where two fiery craters glowed like blast furnaces. Daylight brought a dismal sight: as far as the eye could see, the western Caribbean was strewn with tangled debris swept down from the volcano’s heights by black torrents of water.
The flight from St. Pierre did not slacken under these new alarms; more and more heads of families sent their womenfolk into the environs, or even to Guadeloupe, remaining behind themselves to attend to business affairs. Yet the inflow of terrified country folk, bewildered and aimless, more than offset the departures; the population of the city actually was increased by several thousand. The editor of Les Colonies severely chided the faint-hearted who were deserting their homes for the supposed safety of earthquake-prone Fort-de-France. “Do those who are invading Fort-de-France imagine that they would be safer there than here in case of an earthquake?” he demanded.
Then he added a rhetorical question that was destined to become the epitaph of thirty thousand mortals:
Where indeed? Les Colonies enlisted scientific prestige in support of its contention, and in a front-page interview with Professor Landes, of the lycée, on the nature and habits of volcanoes, quoted the professor as conceding that probably it would be safer “to leave the lower valleys and move to the heights, if one wants to be completely sure of not sharing the fate of Pompeii and Herculaneum.” But the professor pointed out that “Vesuvius has never made many victims, Pompeii was evacuated in time, and few bodies have ever been found in the buried cities.”
From this cautious ambiguity the editor drew the dangerous conclusion that “Mt. Pelée is no more to be feared by St. Pierre than Vesuvius is feared by Naples.”